“We run a scheduled railroad”
Last week I was reading a Rex Stout Nero Wolfe Mystery, The League of Frightened Men, published in 1935. Known for his verbal bashings, the title character offers the following in a conversation with a suspect in a murder.
“It occurs to me that no publication either before or since the invention of printing, no theological treatise and no political or scientific creed, has ever been as narrowly dogmatic or as offensively arbitrary in its prejudices as a railway timetable…. You know that idea could be developed into a first-rate little article. Six hundred to seven hundred words, about The Tyranny of the Wheel, you could call it , with a colored margin of trains …”
Hmmm! I like the suggested title and perhaps I can turn that into a future Full Spectrum. But the truth is that ¾ of a century later, the freight railroad schedules are anything but schedules. One of my favorite quotes is from a discussion with a Class I Service Design executive several years ago when I questioned him about how scheduled his railroad was. He stated: “Well! We’re not totally unscheduled.” That’s seems about right given that another knowledgeable individual stated recently that only 30% or so of a railroad’s operations are truly scheduled. But then again, what is a scheduled railroad?
For the traditional operations manager, a schedule seems to be the lineup that was set up within the last 24 hours with continuous changes as deemed necessary. That is not a schedule as in how an airline runs with specific crews, specific aircraft, and even specific gates locked into a specific time table. Indeed, there are some reasons why a railroad has difficulties in maintaining a schedule that has been developed by Service Design, e.g., a labor action at a major seaport. But there are so many reasons that are truly manageable, and therefore not justified excuses, for going off schedule. For example, there are major shippers who determine when the trains would run. The operating executives will use that as an excuse as to why the schedule must be flexible. What they don’t ask is what does the railroad need to do for that shipper to get a real schedule? E.g., more reliable service, contractual agreements with potential penalties for both parties, etc. One of the major explanations from railroad management of why their railroad must have a flexible schedule is that the railroads with which they interchange do not run to schedule. This mutual abuse is always the other railroad’s fault, it seems.
But what is the problem for not maintaining a true schedule. Again, I quote an ex-executive for a Class I when I asked him if he ran a scheduled railroad. “ Hell yeah, we run a scheduled railroad. And, almost every day I am able to save a few crew starts by cutting short trains.” Then I asked: “But what happens when the locomotives don’t show up in Chicago?” Without hesitation he proudly proclaimed. “ No problem, we have plenty of locomotives up there.” The example here is that operating executives can’t stand what they believe are the inefficiencies of short trains. What they don’t understand is that unstructured inefficiencies that they create by chaotic management of the lineup that has been configured by Service Design are greater than the structured inefficiencies that were built into the schedule. The latter is what airlines do with their schedules. It has only been in the last few years that major airlines have learned to compliment monthly scheduling with daily adjustments. By doing so, they risk losing customers that get angered by canceled flights. They understand their business and they know that their overall on-time performance is actually quite good. That’s the trade-off that they can make … that they deserve. Railroads are no way near that level of customer reliability.